What Ontario Wineries Can Learn From Oregon
What a decade head-start on our province's wineries has done for the northwestern state.
Earlier this summer, I headed out west to taste some wines. Oregon is an up-and-coming wine region in the United States. At the moment, it is a small producer — California makes 89 per cent of all wine in the country, and Oregon is a distant fourth, producing just one per cent.
But my interest in Oregon is thanks to its wine origins. While Inniskillin, Ontario’s first post-prohibition winery planted their first vines in 1974, the Eyrie Vineyards in McMinnville, Oregon, planted its vines in 1965. This gives Oregon a 10-year start on the Ontario wine industry. For an industry that is only slightly older than Ontario itself, it’s difficult not to see how divergent their histories are.
What is remarkable about Oregon is that wineries figured out pretty quickly which grape best suited the state’s climate. Sixty-two per cent of all vines planted in Oregon are pinot noir. While pinot noir is the de facto official grape of the area, at wineries I visited, this does not hinder local producers from working with other varietals. Pinot gris seems to be their second choice, while chardonnay soon follows.
I was not surprised by the quality of the wines throughout the state. What did surprise me was the strong local support embracing the wineries, from farmers in Portland, McMinnville, and Eugene. There is not a single restaurant or wine shop I visited that didn’t fly the local flag high.
The fact that Oregon has pinot noir to rest its hat on may explain the local support. While these wineries hit the ground running, it has taken Ontario’s a bit more time to come into their own. The top three grape varieties coming from Ontario are riesling, cabernet franc, and chardonnay, making up a combined 46 per cent of all grapes used in VQA wines. Oregon hit the ground running, but Ontario seems to have stumbled out of the blocks.
To this day in Ontario, there is a negative perception in the market that follow local wineries around. Head to some of Toronto’s top restaurants and you’re unlikely to find a local presence on the wine list. I can’t help but ask myself what went right in Oregon and wrong in Ontario.
The quality of chardonnay I tasted in Oregon is exceptional, but it remains number three in the portfolio of most wineries I visited. It’s almost as though most wineries are blinded by the fact that they are known for their pinot noir, and are ignoring that they are making other great wines.
Given the similar climate to Niagara, it should be no surprise that I found outstanding riesling in Oregon. I found a perfect bottle of riesling at Territorial Vineyards, an urban winery located in Eugene. This wine was perfectly balanced and painfully underpriced (even at $18 USD) because, according to co-founder Alan Mitchell, there is no demand for this wine in the market. Oregonians are far more interested in pinot noir and pinot gris.
Canada is well-represented in Oregon, with local winemaker Thomas Bachelder having set up shop in the state. If you visit any winery in Niagara and ask about Thomas, locals know you are referring to Thomas Bachelder. It would seem that his reputation precedes him in Oregon as well as Ontario. I had the pleasure of visiting Lemelson vineyards where Bachelder was the winemaker in the late 90s and early 2000s. You can occasionally find Bachelder Oregon wines on the shelves of your local vintages selection. Bachelder’s current wines are pinot noir and chardonnay, produced in the best regions for those grapes (according to him). His wines are being made in Niagara, Burgundy, and Oregon.
Given that Oregon has a decade head-start on the Ontario wine industry, we should look at the state’s successes as an opportunity to catch up. Ontario wineries are forced to work within a stricter legal framework to get their wines to the market. To gain access to large urban centres like Toronto, Ottawa, or Hamilton, wineries are forced to deal with the LCBO. While opening the shelves to grocery stores is a small step forward, it still is a huge step behind nearly every other wine-growing jurisdiction on the planet.
In Eugene wineries have set up shop right within city limits. The Oregon Wine Lab and Territorial Vineyards are located in the middle of the city of Eugene. For wineries that don’t have a storefront in the middle of a city, producers have access to private wine shops to sell their products—something Ontario could stand to learn from.
2013 Bachelder Niagara Chardonnay – Vintages 302083 – $24.95 – ****+
This wine is tremendous value for its price. Previous vintages were priced a little higher, and coming in under $25 makes this wine a steal. The nose is citrus with peach and apple and nice hints of spice. This wine is hard not to gulp with everything going on in the glass. The acidity is refreshing and balanced, leaving you with a nice vanilla finish that lingers.
2013 Marynissen Merlot – $17.00 – ****+
This wine is exceptional value coming in under $20. The nose is plum, currant, blackberry, and hints of smoke. This wine is a whole lotta’ juicy ripe fruit on the palate, but it’s not overly ripe. While this wine drinks very easy right now, it has some nice structure to it and the tannin grips the back of the tongue on the way down. I wouldn’t recommend decanting this wine if you open it right now, but you may want to serve this with a nice steak or a pizza. That being said, at this price there is no reason to not pick up a couple of bottles to put on a wine rack for later in the winter, or even waiting a year or two before revisiting.
2014 Canadian Oak Chardonnay – Vintages 149302 – $21.95 – ****1/2
The nose is rich and complex, with pineapple, peach, vanilla, and a hint of something funky. It really doesn’t get more local than this wine. The barrel is made with Canadian oak and the grapes are fermented with indigenous yeasts. It would seem that with the past few vintages this wine pushes the bar a little bit higher. It’s perfectly balanced in every sense of the word. There is a great balance of peach, pear, apple flavours, and vanilla and spice granted from the barrel. The oak doesn’t overpower anything in this wine. Its texture is creamy and full on the mid-palate. There is terrific acidity on the long rich finish. Part of that finish is baking spice that just grips the back of your tongue and refuses to let go.
Megalomaniac Bubblehead – $29.95 – ****
This wine has no vintage printed on the label, but it would seem the current bottles are a little darker pink that I remember. The nose has a bit of a damn forest floor edge to it, which is a little unusual for sparkling wine. There is nice cherry and cranberry coming out of the glass. The red fruit notes are enveloped with bright crisp citrus notes. There is a hint of sweetness that tries to take hold of the back of your tongue when you take your first sip, but the bright crisp acidity keeps the palate clean and refreshed.